Google under fire from regulator over response to privacy ruling

Search engine’s ‘right to be forgotten’ policy is backfiring, says Data Protection Commissioner

A computer user poses in front of a Google search page in this photo illustration taken in Brussels. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

A computer user poses in front of a Google search page in this photo illustration taken in Brussels. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 12:20

Google risks a fresh round of criticism after its attempts to apply a court ruling giving citizens the right to be forgotten backfired, the State’s data protection watchdog said today ahead of an industry summit with European Union privacy chiefs.

The world’s biggest search engine’s policy of telling media when it had pulled links to some stories has resulted in outlets flagging such articles. That may mean more publicity for a person who had asked for a removal from search results in the first place, said Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes.

“The more they do so, it means the media organisation republishes the information and so much for the right to be forgotten,” Mr Hawkes said in an interview in Dublin. “There is an issue there.”

His comments follow a similar rebuke by Johannes Caspar, the data regulator for the German state of Hamburg. Jogging memories rather than hiding them is one of the unintended consequences of the top EU court’s surprise ruling that ordered Google and other search engines to take down personal information on request if it’s outdated or irrelevant.

Privacy watchdogs from the 28-nation bloc start to grapple today with how to build a more coordinated approach. At the Brussels meeting, national regulators in the EU’s so-called Article 29 Working Party will hear from search engine providers and plan to agree guidelines in September. The event gives search providers including Google, Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo! the possibility to comment on how they plan to comply with the right-to-be-forgotten ruling, according to Hamburg’s Caspar.

Al Verney, a spokesman for Google in Brussels didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the data-privacy meeting. Microsoft declined to speak about the event. Yahoo will be present, said Caroline Macleod-Smith, a spokeswoman for the company.

Google is telling website operators when it removes links from search results on a person’s name that point to their pages. The British Broadcasting Corporation’s website and the Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspapers have flagged stories that they were told would have links cut. Google says it’s trying to be transparent and won’t share details of why it’s taking down links in order to protect a person’s privacy.

While Google triggered rebukes for the way it pulled some search results to articles, Mr Hawkes said the handling of rejections of requests for information to be removed is also fraught with potential pitfalls for search engines and their regulators.

Regulators will also press Google to remove links on sites outside Europe, including its main site google.com, the Financial Times reported today, citing unidentified people. Google.com gets fewer than 5 per cent of user searches in Europe, the European Commission has said.